Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau’s recent announcement of an Islamic caliphate in the state of Borno, northeast Nigeria, is of domestic, regional and international concern. Boko Haram has seized numerous towns, imposing its control over entire areas of northeast Nigeria following the army’s withdrawal.
The organization’s victories and atrocities have again brought attention to the situation in Nigeria, to the ideological change of radical movements, and to the expansion of the struggle against Boko Haram. The movement has issued several fatwas (religious edicts) against cooperating with the state. It has killed those accused of doing so, considering them apostates cooperating with infidels.
The caliphate consists of vast areas in Borno, and territory in the neighboring state of Yobe. The group’s leader is the caliph, and the movement’s structure is decentralized. It thus operates according to a cluster pattern, whereby each group works almost independently. This prevents other groups from being exposed or arrested when one is taken down.
Boko Haram’s major attacks are against civilians, Christian towns, schools, police, and those who cooperate with them. The north of the country has thus become a hotbed for ideological jihad. Despite the army’s attacks against it, Boko Haram remains active and seeks expansion beyond Nigeria.
Boko Haram and ISIS
There are similarities between Boko Haram and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS is considered an expansion of the ideology of Al-Qaeda, while Boko Haram is ideologically linked to the Taliban movement of Nigeria, which in turn was established on the ideology of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Boko Haram and ISIS both think a caliphate must reign on earth, and to achieve this, non-Muslims must be slaughtered if they do not convert to Islam. Another similarity is that they view their victories as “from God.” Furthermore, U.N. reports have exposed the rise of sexual violence in areas controlled by both organizations.
Boko Haram’s acts in Nigeria have led to further deterioration of security, which has negatively affected Africa’s biggest economy. Thirteen American human rights organizations have urged Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to take strict measures against Boko Haram.
Clashes between the group and the army have killed more than 6,000 and displaced over 40,000. Boko Haram’s announced aim is to implement Islamic sharia law in Nigeria, of which almost half its population is Christian.
The state is thus racing against time to eliminate the group. There are domestic pressures on Jonathan, given that presidential elections are scheduled for 2015. The state’s attempts at dialogue with Boko Haram for the past three years have failed to achieve any breakthrough.
There are also foreign pressures, as a significant part of the international community has voiced fear of the spread of violence in the country. Nigerian forces have been confronting Boko Haram since 2009, and although Jonathan promised to uproot it, the state seems unable to do so. This has subjected the government to unprecedented criticism, particularly following its failure to find the schoolgirls abducted in April.
Boko Haram’s rise
There are various reasons behind Boko Haram’s rise. One is the decrease in the government’s popularity due to corruption. Another is the country’s economic disparities, with influential figures monopolizing wealth while some 70% of the population live on less than $2 a day. There is also the failure to resolve Muslim affairs. An example is the government’s decision in February to ban the hijab in state schools.
In addition, there is the state’s clear bias towards Christians, who represent 40% of the population, at the expense of Muslims. There is also the government’s overlooking of Muslim teachings in school curricula. This has enabled Boko Haram, which was formed in 2004 by Mohammed Yussuf, to market itself as a defender of Islam and Muslims.
Violence will only worsen as long as the government does not have a clear vision to address Boko Haram in particular, and Muslims’ situation in general. Nigeria is thus at a crossroads. It may need more than one approach to stop Boko Haram. It needs to reach new agreements between the state and active parties, and to launch an expanded dialogue to resolve the affairs of Muslims.
It also needs to confront Boko Haram’s ideas by presenting counterarguments based on evidence and facts. Pursuing the movement is futile if the latter’s ideas are not refuted. Nigeria also needs to reconsider the legislative and legal systems in order to pave the way toward social integration and therefore end rising tensions.